John Bray of Poughill – Recorder of Wrecks

Reverend Robert Hawker, the eccentric vicar of Morwenstow, has become a much celebrated figure. He is perhaps best known as the author of Cornwall’s unofficial national anthem “Song of the Western Men”, better known as ‘Trelawney’, but he is also remembered for recording the dark tales of smugglers, wreckers and shipwrecks that occurred in his parish on the wild north coast. Though a little prone to exaggeration and elaboration his writings on the subject are still considered an invaluable resource.

But of course Hawker often relied on the Cornish people in his community for these tales, much of what he recorded came from stories he had been told by local people – their lived experiences. And in 1865 Hawker wrote:

“So stern and pitiless is this iron-bound coast that within the memory of one man upwards of eighty wrecks have been counted within reach of fifteen miles . . .”


The man he refers to here, the one who recalled so many shipwrecks, was almost certainly John Bray, a fascinating character who, perhaps far better than Hawker, can bring us closer to these dramatic episodes of our Cornish coast’s seafaring history.

Meet John Bray

John Bray was born at Poughill near Bude in c1744 and his parents, John and Grace, had him baptised at St Swithian’s Church, Launcells in 1748.

poughill wrecks
Poughill parish church

It is not well known that later in life Bray, who remained living the Bude area, was in correspondence with Rev. Hawker, and perhaps even considering him a friend. When he compiled a manuscript giving an account of some 37 shipwrecks that had occurred between 1756 and 1830 he noted that he had undertaken the task “at the request of a gentleman of Cornwall”, widely assumed to be Hawker.

The account was a record of all wrecks that Bray had been personally been involved with during his lifetime, not as a wrecker, but as a witness, a salvager and sometimes a rescuer.

john bray wrecks
The cover of my copy of John Bray’s book published by the Trevithick Society in 1975

John Bray’s “An Account of Shipwrecks on the North Coast of Cornwall”, was written at Rev. Hawker’s request in about 1832 when Bray was 88 years old. Although little is known about the man himself, his manuscript is unique and completely fascinating. In it he describes the circumstances surrounding nearly 40 wrecks that all happened between Millook and Morwenstow, all of which he witnessed personally, the first when he was just 12 years old.

Bayonets, Boxes of Oranges & Many Monkeys

There was the Alert, a slave ship on its way to Africa from Bristol with a cargo of iron, wrecked at Maer cliffs below Poughill in 1790 with the loss of all hands. A sloop Bray said was carrying “many monkeys” and another supposed pirate ship that cast a mountain of muskets, bayonets, boarding pikes, swords and three bedraggled survivors onto the rocks.

View from Maer cliffs

In 1824 he recounts how six hundred boxes of oranges were saved from a ship called Vrow Geetina which came ashore at Millook. The Othello, a ‘Yankee’ ship, which hit the rocks near Morwenstow delighted locals with the bales of cotton strewn along the shore. While it seems some cargo was seen as less of a prize, just a few days later when a Newfoundland ship called John was wrecked its cargo of salted fish was left to rot on the sand.

Bray knew the coast, and the people, like the back of his hand. Baptised in Launcells in 1748, he spent all of his life in the village of Poughill (pronounced Poufill). At one time or other he was a farmer, merchant, ship owner, constable and salvage agent. Said to have been shrewd, hardy, loyal and trustworthy he was also “a man capable of giving hard knocks and receiving them”. In a time when theft from shipwrecks was considered a normal part of coastal living, even a right, Bray worked hard with the authorities to legally salvage cargo, for a reward, and to retrieve goods that had made their way into local homes.

Cliffs between Poughill and Bude

Salvage & Spelling

The forth wreck that he writes about was a brig from Drogheda in Ireland which in about 1759 was on its way to France laden with barrels of butter. Bray vividly describes the brutal, distressing scene as he stands on the shore watching the disaster unfold, unable to help the desperate crew.

“The poor souls was makeing a dismal noise scritching out for help, and we could not give them assistance. When one part of the ship would part the poor men would get on it, then would a sea wash them off. At last the mast fell and it was soon over, all the poor men drownded.”

In the coming days he managed to raise enough money to give the sailors a proper burial and also salvaged “a thousand casks” of butter for the owners of the ship. Bray, along with some constables from Stratton, were standing guard over this cargo when eight men attacked them saying they have come to take the butter. Unfortunately for them Bray knew most of them by sight. A battle ensued in which Bray gave a man called Cory, a blacksmith from Jacobstow, “a blow in the peeping holes” (eyes) and tore off his wig. The butter was saved and fines were handed out to the culprits.


Bray only had a very basic education and wrote that his “bad spelling” was the “folt in my parrents puting me at Bodmin at a blind, poor woman at school and at a man who was 90 years of age when he kept school”.

As a consequence his manuscript is full of eccentric spelling and grammar and sadly he often fails to record the names of the ships or the dates of events, probably due to it being written towards the end of his life when some details had faded. However, none of this detracts from the vivid clarity and passion of his writing.

A Premonition

In about 1770 Bray claims that he dreamt of a shipwreck.

He said that he awoke with in fright and, jumping on his horse, rode for Widemouth Bay. On arriving at the beach he was astonished to see a French brig, “her sails split all in rags” breaking up in the waves. She was “laden with hides of a foreign kind, limmons and orranges” and as he watched the sailors trying to tie themselves to anything that would float Bray decided he must do something to help. In an act of reckless bravery he repeatedly rode out into the waves on his horse. After several attempts, the horse swimming against the terrific undertow, both of them being pulled beneath the waves and nearly drowned, Bray managed to rescue all of the stricken crew.

View of Widemouth Bay

The next morning he rode out to see the shipwrecked sailors, who were being cared for in local homes, and received a hero’s welcome. He wrote:

“They was all much recovered and if I could have swalled gould [swallowed gold] I might have had it. Instead they gave me as many limmons and oranges as I could bring home.”

In what may have been his last letter to Hawker dated 31st July 1832 Bray informs the parson that he has completed “the work” meaning his manuscript, a feat of memory which it seems he found particularly taxing. He closes the letter by saying:

“This books contains all the wraks [wrecks] I can recollect, I have done this troublesome Task at last . . . this makes my labour on this bisness to be at an ende. I thank God for his Goodness in permeeting me to such rememberance in my advanced age of nigh eighty eight years.”

John Bray died in 1836 and was buried at Poughill aged 92 years.

Author’s Note: The quotes in this article are taken from a small leaflet published in 1975, edited and transcribed by A. K. Hamilton Jenkin who studied the original manuscript. He notes that the document was first in the possession of Rev. Hawker then passed to the Maskell family before being sold to the British Museum in 1909. Reference – Add. MS. 37826. However, I was unable to find a record of it in their archive.

Further Reading:

A Mysterious Shipwreck at Mullion

‘Adolf Vinnen’ – Last great Sailing ship Wrecked on Cornwall’s Coast

The Earthquake at Poughill

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2 thoughts on “John Bray of Poughill – Recorder of Wrecks

  1. Could someone who posted the item about Henry Bodrugan please contact me as I would like to ask a couple of questions regarding the content many thanks

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